The days of small things

I resolved to see the world with my own eager eyes. So I ran away from home, and in this way made an early acquaintance with the corrugated side of life.

I joined a small circus, and soon learned to conduct the Punch and Judy show, to do a ventriloquial act, and to play town clown on the bars — “gol darn it.” I also doubled in brass — that is, I beat the cymbals. I here gained the experiences that possibly ripened me into the world’s Handcuff King and Prison Breaker — a title which i have justly earned.

But there was a time when I was not recognized as I am now. Those were the days of small things. That was in the middle West.

The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini

Houdini wasn’t a great writer, but he writes plainly and occasionally turns a great phrase.

I read this while researching thieves and con men for a project that I still haven’t quite found the right way into.

Travailler, toujours travailler.

Roding then took Rilke outside for a tour of the grounds. As they walked, Roding began to tell Rilke about his life, but not in the way one might speak to a journalist on assignment. He understood that Rilke was a fellow artist, and so he framed his stories as lessons that the young poet might take as examples.

Above all else, he stressed to Rilke, Travailler, toujours travailler. You must work, always work, he said.

“To this I devoted my youth.” But it was not enough to make work, the word he preferred to “art”; one had to live it.

That meant renouncing the trappings of earthly pleasures, like fine wine, sedating sofas, even one’s own children, should they prove distracting form the pursuit.

— from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett

Exhilaration comes from naming the unnamable and hearing it named

I’m moving again and it’s time to go through books that are good enough for me to mark up but not good enough to haul into storage while I figure out where I’m going to land.

Going through The Last Self-Help Book, I found some passages that I highlighted a few months ago and now I’m wondering if Walker read Bohm because there are a lot of similarities in the way they talk about art and science describing the world as it is:

Exhilaration comes from naming the unnamable and hearing it named.

If Kafka’s Metamorphosis is presently a more accurate account of the self than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it is the more exhilarating for being so.

The naming of the predicament of the self by art is its reversal. Hence the salvific effect of art. Through art, the predicament of self becomes not only speakable but laughable. Hellen Keller and any two-year-old and Kafka’s friends laughed when the unnamable was named. Kafka and his friends laughed when the unnameable was named. Kafka and his friends laughed when he read his stories to them.

Less related but darkly comic, in that Kafka lol way:

If poets often commit suicide, it is not because their poems are bad but because they are good. Whoever heard of a bad poetry committing suicide? The reader is only a little better off. The exhilaration of a good poem lasts twenty minutes, an hour at most.

Unlike the scientist, the artist has reentry problems that are frequent and catastrophic.

Kafka’s best joke

No wonder we cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from the horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.

— David Foster Wallace from “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed” (in Consider the Lobster)

Also maybe the subtext of everything I write.

Sturgeon’s Law

“90% of everything is crap.”

That’s a paraphrase of:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

— Theodore Sturgeon

Counterintuitive because most people only see at most the top 10-15% of output from any given creative field.

And the inverse:

The inverse is obviously also true: if ninety percent of everything is crap, then even in areas that are generally considered inferior (such as soap operasdime novels or fan fiction), there must be ten percent that may be worth something.

— Various Wikipedia editors working asynchronously

From Wikipedia.

Deepfakes

After posting on deep voicefakes, I saw this (and a few others) on Kottke:

There’s still something uncanny about it, but the technology is obviously very close. I mean, maybe the uncanny thing is just that it’s Steve Buscemi in Jennifer Lawrence’s body with her voice.

The lip-syncing videos are close too, but something still feels a little off to them:

We’re entering a world where you can make a live-action film without any traditional “production”. You can have just writing and post-production.

Write the script.

Then build it with AI-generated voices and images.

Production could be simply a matter of recording the samples to build the voices and recording some video to build the video.

You might not even need that — you could pulls the voices and imagery from a library.

We could bring back dead actors to play leading roles. Want to reunite Bogey and Bacall? Just deepfake it.

We’re going to need a whole new area of IP law for this. Who owns the rights to their image or voice? Do you have rights for that? Does it expire or go into the public domain? How much would the rights to use, say, Bradley Cooper’s digital avatar in perpetuity?

WHAM

I put my short film, WHAM, online:

AI can mimic human voices

What the fuck:

There’s a company called Dessa that made a software called RealTalk that can learn how to speak in someone’s voice. Apparently it wasn’t that hard to train it.

I don’t listen to Rogan’s podcast regularly so I don’t know if I would be able to realize it was fake, but it’s close enough and it’ll just get better anyway.1

The company isn’t releasing it to the public but it’s only a matter of time before someone else does the same thing.

My first thought was “oh this sounds like a terrifying political propaganda/slander tool!” and my second thought was that this will render useless any voice-based work.

Do you need a news reader on the radio? No, you just need someone to speak to the robot enough to train it. No need to show up to the studio every morning (eventually followed by a robot to write the news report?).

Voiceover artists too, basically unnecessary now. A company could have software trained with a library of thousands (or millions) of voices.

Maybe I’m being naive but I’m skeptical that society will collapse because of technology like this. We have Photoshop and yes there are implications to only seeing women in magazines who have been Photoshopped, but it’s not like people are creating fake images of say a presidential candidate doing cocaine.

Why not? If you were a strategist recommending this, people would probably say “people won’t believe it.”

And I think we’ve developed a kind of norm of skepticism around this kind of thing, like anything scandalous we immediately think “is this fake?” or “what’s the PR angle here?”.

We already have a norm for “don’t believe everything you read” and this does make modern life difficult: it would be nice to know that if a newspaper prints something then it’s 100% true, but that’s not the case and here we are.

I think there’s a dangerous window while that norm is forming — like the 2020 elections could be wild, but then a norm forms where eventually people say “oh you can’t trust video anymore, especially video of politicians.”

It’s still powerful, but I think the power is in making people less trusting of recorded images (or in the near future, recorded audio) that don’t come from pre-vetted sources.

From a creator’s perspective, it’s interesting to think about what could be done without needing to go into a studio to record. Just as music can be composed on a computer now, so can voices.


  1. Take the Joe Turing Test here

Bohm on creativity, order, art, and mediocrity

Epistemic status: these thoughts are based on a book that I’m still in the middle of. I’m more trying to work out my thinking than I am trying to tell you what to think or how to make movies. Also, I have taken three physics classes in my life and none of them had a lot of math.1

I’m reading On Creativity by David Bohm, which I discovered through Guillaume Wolf’s You Are a Message.

I’m only on page 34. It’s one of those read-a-page-and-then-think-for-10 minutes kind of books.

Bohm starts by talking about how the physical universe is ordered. It’s a structure of many ordered objects or systems within a hierarchy of orders.

(more…)
  1. In college I took an intro to physics class. The one memory I have is of the professor looking up to see a kid leaving in the middle of his lecture. In his thick Russian accent, he asked the student “where are you going?” and the student said “I have something important to go to” and with a bewildered look, the professor said “more important than Newton?” and I thought that was just the funniest thing. 

Sociological vs. Psychological Storytelling

From The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones by Zynep Tufecki:

At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.

What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.

This is an important shift to dissect because whether we tell our stories primarily from a sociological or psychological point of view has great consequences for how we deal with our world and the problems we encounter.

Reading this article made me realize why I love about my favorite TV shows, The Wire and Deadwood, and why I find it so hard to find any shows in the modern landscape that I connect with on the same level.

It also made me realize that the stories I tend to write have a tendency towards the sociological instead of the psychological (I don’t think any story is 100% on either side of the spectrum).

It’s hard for me to limit something to just one or two main characters — I usually get bored and want to bring in more characters or throw a couple characters into many different situations where they interact with people from different parts of society or with different POVs. Or I start with a collection of ideas that I want to work through comedically or dramatically, and then map the characters or the situations to those ideas.

And I honestly get kind of bored just thinking about a single character overcoming their demons or whatever, and the typical screenwriting advice of “put your character in a bad place and then make their life hell” kind of bores me as well.

So it’s really refreshing to have someone put a name on a different kind of writing that I knew existed but had never seen put into words.

And come to think of it, my love for sociological storytelling probably also explains my love for The Office, which inspired the amazing series of sociological essays, The Gervais Principle. And it’s probably why I love Buñuel so much.